Germantown Friends students, disabled students share 'Something Magical’
The scene is short for a musical theater production, calling for one actor to sing “It’s a doggone shame!” in a Southern accent followed by another cast member repeating the same line. Addison Kolft, a mop-topped fourth grader, belts his part out with gusto. But despite his big grin and best intentions, 6-year-old costar Josh Johnson seems stymied.
The scene is short for a musical theater production, calling for one actor to sing "It's a doggone shame!" in a Southern accent followed by another cast member repeating the same line.
Addison Kolft, a mop-topped fourth grader, belts his part out with gusto. But despite his big grin and best intentions, 6-year-old costar Josh Johnson seems stymied.
He pushes buttons. He sways, swings his arms, and purses his lips. But the machine programmed to sing for Johnson in a robotic voice remains maddeningly silent long past his cue.
"We'll wait for you," director Andrea Green says cheerily, keeping the beat on piano. "I can't wait to hear this, Josh."
Nobody moves except for Kolft, who pats Johnson reassuringly. For the young cast and crew of these "Something Magical" productions, pregnant pauses, contagious giggles, unexplained outbursts, and technical glitches are to be expected — and embraced.
Half the performers of this annual celebration are fourth graders from Germantown Friends School (GFS), the esteemed Quaker institution that sends 100 percent of its graduates to college. The other half attend West Philadelphia's HMS School for Children With Cerebral Palsy. Founded in 1882 as the Home of the Merciful Saviour for Crippled Children, HMS is the oldest school in the nation dedicated to educating children with such severe disabilities that they were once dubbed hopeless cases.
Sharing the limelight
"Something Magical" dates back three decades to the day GFS teacher Teresa Maebori recoiled at hearing her students use the word retard. The educator knew children struggle with difference. So she took them to HMS to meet kids just like them, except nonverbal and in wheelchairs.
Recalls Maebori: "The staff at HMS said, 'It's nice they come, but they don't really understand us.'?" That residual discomfort gave HMS music therapist Green the spark to begin writing and staging Broadway-style shows featuring children from both schools as equal partners sharing the limelight.
For this 30th anniversary production, the children will perform "The Other Side of the Fence," Green's inaugural play about feuding farmers united by animals who become pals despite their physical separation.
"Our students are as much a part of what's going on in popular culture as anyone," reminds HMS executive director Diane Gallagher. "They long to be part of a group, to share in the social fabric of life. They just participate and communicate it differently."
I saw that firsthand months ago when I spent a morning reading Harold and the Purple Crayon to an HMS class.
Afterward, we wound up talking about Justin Bieber, iCarly, and whether chickens make good pets. Many students endure severe disabilities; each used a different device or technique — eye gaze, head tap — to make herself heard. But every last one of those young people had a strong opinion to share — especially about chickens.
A show for the ages
The cast spent six months learning lyrics and lines, tweaking technology, and choreographing a hoedown between actors on foot and those in motorized chairs.
At Tuesday'sdress rehearsal for Saturday's free public performance, Green pushes her pros one last time to imagine the audience and project.
Kristin Stauffer, an 8-year-old HMS student, and Lily Seldin nail their turn as a pair of perky pigs.
"I dig that pig!" Lily sings, leaning down to put the microphone next to her partner's lips.
"He blows a kiss," Kristin warbles quietly, but excitedly.
Finishes Lily: "It's perfect bliss!"
Throughout the rehearsal, I can't stop watching Jada Williams, a GFS student in braids and Sketchers who instinctively reaches for 12-year-old Ashley Overton's hand or strokes the older student's hair — small gestures to maintain a connection even as an aide steps in to put water in Overton's feeding tube.
When it's time for Williams' solo in one of the closing numbers, "Good Friends," she does not disappoint.
Good friends should be forever … like a treasure.
When you're down and lonely, your friend should be there to understand.
Overton and Green both beam.
"That," the director predicts, "is going to be a tearjerker!"
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.
To see the show
A free public performance of "Something Magical" will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Germantown Friends School, 31 W. Coulter St.
To see a video
Go to philly.com/somethingmagical